Sanskrit Pathways for Mobilizing Knowledge of Premodern Yoga to Studio-Based Practitioners

Abstract

Acknowledged in 2016 by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, yoga today can be said to impact three primary sets of stakeholders: (a) global practitioners and professional instructors of studio-based postural yoga; (b) academic scholars investigating yoga’s historical, textual, and cultural life; and (c) traditional culture bearers within established guru lineages in South Asia and the diaspora. These groups are not mutually exclusive, exhaustive, or homogeneous, but there are often significant cleavages between them—particularly in the production and dissemination of authoritative knowledge about yoga’s premodern “roots.” This essay investigates how (anglophone) practitioners of studio-based postural yoga are currently able to access new scholarship on premodern yoga traditions, and the extent to which specialized Sanskrit language training may offer practitioners a pathway for more active participation in this knowledge mobilization process. We suggest that a kinesthetic approach, in which Sanskrit pedagogy is juxtaposed with physical yoga practice in the studio, might further enhance this process, leading to a more equitable engagement between scholars, studio-based practitioners, and traditional culture bearers of yoga.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    On “core” and “arbitrary” markers of cultural identity from a folkloristic perspective, see Zhang 2015.

  2. 2.

    See De Michelis 2007: 2. For reviews of therapeutic, clinical, and biomedical research on yoga, see Field 2011, 2016; Jeter et al. 2015. Patwardhan (2017) offers a succinct summary and overview of stakeholder concerns within what he terms “medicalized yoga” research.

  3. 3.

    Exemplary here are the writings of Susanna Barkataki (2015) and others on the Decolonizing Yoga website (https://www.decolonizingyoga.com). Also valuable are posts on Barkataki’s own personal blog, https://www.susannabarkataki.com, as well as Honor Don't Appropriate Yoga (https://honordontappropriateyoga.com), a new series of online videos that involve a number of practitioners, instructors, activists, and scholars speaking on promoting equity within the yoga studio.

  4. 4.

    For a political analysis the UN’s “International Day of Yoga” declaration (United Nations 2014) as well as UNESCO’s (2016) declaration of yoga as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity , see Ahuja 2015, Gautam and Droogan 2018, McCartney 2019a: 385–389. For further studies of the entanglements between politics and yoga, see Godrej 2017, McCartney 2017, 2019b.

  5. 5.

    Callie Maddox (2015) explores how discourses of authenticity within the Ashtanga school both reinforce the yoga tourism industry in Mysore, and, conversely, how yoga-touristic expectations result in a denial of India’s “postcolonial present.”

  6. 6.

    For other studies of gurus and quasi-gurus within major yoga lineages, see Armstrong 2018 (Bikram Choudhury); Deslippe 2012 (Yogi Bhajan of Kundalini Yoga); Goldberg 2013 (Amrit Desai of Kripalu Yoga).

  7. 7.

    Foxen’s recent volume (2020), unreleased at the time of this article’s writing, makes a strong argument for analyzing SBPY within European and North American religious, intellectual, and historical contexts.

  8. 8.

    Representative publications include Berila et al. 2016; Bhalla and Moscowitz 2019; Mangiarotti 2019; and Nair 2019, as well as a number of recent theses and dissertations (Gandhi 2009; Sajovich 2015; Miller 2019).

  9. 9.

    See, for example, Blu Wakpa 2018; Sood 2018; Cameron 2019; Batacharya 2018.

  10. 10.

    See Sajovich 2015 for a thorough analysis of contributions to Decolonizing Yoga. Also valuable are posts on Barkataki’s personal blog, https://www.susannabarkataki.com, as well as Honor Do not Appropriate Yoga (https://honordontappropriateyoga.com), a new series of online videos involving Barkataki and a number of practitioners, instructors, activists, and scholars concerned with encouraging equity within the yoga studio.

  11. 11.

    Two public events were organized in Vancouver, in partnership with Karma Teachers Centre for Yoga and Meditation, Canada’s only federally registered non-profit yoga studio and teacher training school (https://www.karmateachers.org): (1) A “Sanskrit for Yoga” workshop on October 26, 2019, with 12 trainees within Karma Teachers’ 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training program, and (2) A conversational public forum on Sanskrit for professional yoga instructors, involving 25–30 attendees and hosted at Karma Teachers on November 14, 2019.

  12. 12.

    See Baier et al. 2018, a rich collection of scholarly essays that encapsulates the equally prominent “Yoga in Transformation” project at the University of Vienna. Also noteworthy is the “Ayuryog” project, which seeks to bring premodern yoga (along with Ayurvedic medicine and alchemy) into conversation within contemporary health practices (e.g., Wujastyk et al. 2017). See also Chapple and Funes Maderey 2019.

  13. 13.

    Raveh’s monograph also includes an invaluable bibliography of translations of the Yogasūtra and its commentaries, as well as numerous scholarly resources on this topic.

  14. 14.

    The contributions to Chapple and Funes Maderey 2019 offer additional investigations into how Patañjali’s canonical text can be integrated into the philosophy, practices, and worldviews of yoga.

  15. 15.

    The online courses, we should note, do offer more possibilities for interactive learning, in English, while the Sanskrit source materials remain inaccessible to practitioners.

  16. 16.

    For additional discussions of Sanskrit pedagogy for non-heritage learners, see Taylor and Beckmann 2009, Tull 2015.

  17. 17.

    It is worth mentioning that several web-based supplements, valuable for self-guided study, are now available for these Sanskrit primers, though they are not specifically targeted to yoga practitioners. Ruppel has produced a series of Youtube videos supplementing the Cambridge Introduction to Sanskrit, along with handouts, charts, and other resources (https://www.cambridge-sanskrit.org). TheJoyofSanskrit, an online publication by Taylor and Scotellaro (2014), integrates Egenes 2003 with audiovisual lessons and spoken Sanskrit exercises and activities. UBC Sanskrit Learning Tools (https://www.ubcsanskrit.ca) (Sathaye and Bellefleur 2009) offers a lesson-by-lesson supplement to Goldman and Goldman 2019, featuring interactive handouts, exercise engines, flash cards, and other reference materials.

  18. 18.

    For an overview, see Khalsa 2004. The journals Yoga-Mīmāṃsā (which has been published out of Swami Kuvalayananda’s Kaivalyadham Ashram in Lonavala, India, since 1924) and International Journal of Yoga (published by S-VYASA University, Bengaluru) are prominent venues for these fields. See also the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, based in North America and published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) (https://www.iayt.org/page/IJYTCurrent).

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Correspondence to Adheesh Sathaye.

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This research is made possible through support by the Fostering Research Partnerships Fund and the Faculty of Arts at the University of British Columbia, and a partnership with Karma Teachers Centre for Yoga and Meditation in Vancouver (https://www.karmateachers.org). The comments and suggestions of two anonymous reviewers have proven invaluable in the production of this essay.

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Sathaye, A., Winther, Z. Sanskrit Pathways for Mobilizing Knowledge of Premodern Yoga to Studio-Based Practitioners. DHARM (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42240-020-00072-0

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Keywords

  • Sanskrit
  • Studio-based postural yoga
  • Premodern yoga studies
  • Knowledge mobilization
  • Public-facing humanities